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Truth Serum: Investigating "100% Natural" Beauty Care Claims


In the world of personal care products I see the phrase "100% Natural" a lot. And then I look at the ingredient list. And often the ingredient list is not truly "all natural" but rather contains synthetic ingredients that may have had a natural origin but are no longer truly considered "all natural".


In the beauty industry at present "natural" is not defined. So often people create their own definition of "100% natural". In my training in cosmetic chemistry however, there are criteria for determining the "naturalness" of an ingredient.


Ingredients can be natural, naturally derived, a naturally derived synthetic, or synthetic. And in my training in cosmetic chemistry I was taught that if an ingredient is a naturally derived synthetic it is no longer truly "all natural".


Let's look at some examples of ingredients and their "naturalness".


Petroleum, also known as crude oil, is a naturally occurring fossil fuel. It is believed to be derived from ancient organic matter, primarily the remains of plants and microscopic marine organisms that lived millions of years ago.


While petroleum itself is natural, many products derived from petroleum, such as certain plastics or synthetic materials, are considered synthetic due to the chemical transformations and processing they undergo. And if a skin care brand used an ingredient such as mineral oil, petroleum jelly, dimethicone, polyethylene glycol, or fragrances derived from petroleum it would not tout it as anything remotely natural. In fact some may label these ingredients "toxic" even though if an ingredient is approved for use in cosmetics and used in the approved amounts it is considered safe.


And just like petroleum derived ingredients, although a cosmetic ingredient may have started with an ingredient derived from nature, such as coconut oil or cellulose from plants, if it undergoes certain types of chemical processing or is coupled with a synthetic ingredient it is no longer considered truly "all natural" but a naturally derived synthetic (NDS).


So for example hydroxyethyl cellulose (HEC) is derived from cellulose, which comes from plant matter, and is treated with ethylene oxide, a synthetic compound to produce the thickener HEC. Is it 100% natural?


No -- just like mineral oil although it began with natural materials it underwent a process that rendered it a naturally derived synthetic. So to call it "100% natural" is not accurate.


I recently came across an instagram post touting hair care products made "only with 100% natural and organic ingredients hand made in the [United States]".


I took a look at the ingredient list because I enjoy researching how people create high performing products with "all natural" ingredients.


However the "all natural" line up included things like sodium C14-C16 olefin sulfonate -- derived from coconuts but it undergoes the chemical process of sulfonation which renders it no longer truly "all natural" but naturally derived synthetic (NDS).


Polyquaternium 10 was also on the list. Which is derived from hydroxyethyl cellulose, which we learned above is a naturally derived synthetic that was further processed to create the polyquaternium.


Acrylates copolymer was also included, which is derived from Acrylic acid, methacrylic acid, and octylacrylamide which are typically derived from petrochemicals.


For those trained in cosmetic chemistry formulating a "100% natural" product for a client would mean we have to stick to ingredients that are natural or naturally derived. Otherwise why couldn't we hypothetically use ingredients derived from petroleum such as mineral oil or petroleum jelly if after all they did start with natural plant and animal materials?


That said if an ingredient is approved for use is cosmetic formulations and used in the appropriate amounts it is considered safe. Polyquaternium 10, sodium C14-C16 olefin sulfonate, and acrylates copolymer are safe synthetic ingredients that also have very low scores (meaning they are considered "green" or "safe") by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) site (1, 2, 3).


People often ask me if my products are "100% natural" or "clean" or "toxic free", "100% organic" and so forth. I say I create high performance products made with care for people and the planet. And every ingredient I use is considered safe and "clean".


But because I create high performance products I can't use just coconut oil and beeswax. I do incorporate naturally derived synthetics as well as nature identical ingredients (ingredients such as vitamins can either be extracted from plant sources or created synthetically. It can actually be more sustainable, eco-friendly, and even cleaner to create a vitamin or ingredient in a lab). And I make products I use on my own skin and hair and feel honored to sell and share (and I'm pretty picky!)


Chemists and brands that truly understand their ingredients but look to create products with care often help consumers understand where the ingredients come from and why they are used.


For example Lush and Paula's Choice allow customers to search ingredients and designate them as natural, naturally derived, or "safe synthetics".


It's not entirely truthful for companies to use terms like "100% natural" when in fact they include naturally derived synthetic ingredients in their products.


In the same way it's not truthful to accuse brands of including "toxic" ingredients if they are approved for use in cosmetics and used in safe limits. Transparent brands help customers understand their ingredient list.


So just because a brand claims to be "100% natural" what does it really mean? It may not be as natural as you are led to believe. And if a brand accuses other of being "toxic" perhaps it's just a case of "toxic" marketing.


Perhaps instead we should follow the science, transparency, and truth. And I suppose most formulators and companies ARE trying to create awesome products, be successful, and just looking to be seen. And kudos to those working hard to make sure truth and transparency are an important part of who they are.


What are your thoughts?


Aromatic blessings,

Tricia


  1. Environmental Working Group Website: sodium C14-C16 olefin sulfonate, accessed from: https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/706003-SODIUM_C1416_OLEFIN_SULFONATE/

  2. Environmental Working Group Website: Polyquaternium 10, accessed from: https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/705101-POLYQUATERNIUM10/

  3. Environmental Working Group Website: acrylates copolymer, accessed from: https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/700123-ACRYLATES_COPOLYMER/


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